The design philosophy at Naughty Dog: An interview with Uncharted 2’s co-lead designer Richard Lemarchand

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Richard Lemarchand

As one of the more prominent faces behind a team of 90 developers who made one of the best cinematic action games of all time, Richard Lemarchand has recently given tons of interviews and  presentations promoting his company’s development philosophy. Signing a decent portion of Uncharted 2 copies in the process, this lead designer at Naughty Dog still resembles a very down to earth kind of guy. Especially after all the praise and prizes he and his team have received for their latest work on Uncharted 2: Among Thieves. While at the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco to give his own Uncharted 2 post-mortem presentation, I was fortunate enough to meet up with Lemarchand to ask him about how he got to this far as a game designer, why he loves his job at Naughty Dog so much and what lies ahead of him and his team.

Having to convince his future employers that a young Physics and Philosophy student with a large library of games would make a good game designer, Lemarchand started his game making career in 1991 landing his first job at the British wing of the American game company Microprose. “They believed in me when I said passionately that I could be a videogame designer,” Lemarchand added with a smile. “I moved to the United States in 1995 and worked for Crystal Dynamics for almost a decade where I met my friend and colleague Amy Hennig, who of course is the creative director of Uncharted 2.” Lemarchand later moved to Naughty Dog in the summer of 2004 to help finish the third game in the Jak and Daxter series.

Adoring iterative and adaptable game design

During the first Uncharted game, Lemarchand’s team faced the huge challenge of discovering the Playstation 3’s technology, building an entire engine fro scratch, a game design that perfectly blends story and gameplay and stumbling upon the value of subtle character performances. The second time around, Lemarchand and his team were able to refine their ideas to near perfection and prove with Uncharted 2: Among Thieves that the effectivity of their production methods and development philosophy was no coincidence. The company culture that was being sported but just 50 people when Lemarchand joined the company was a perfect fit for him. “Their development philosophy is so unique and so aligned with everything that I had discovered about the best ways of making videogames,” Lemarchand added.

“We’ve worked very hard to keep our studio culture, even though we’ve grown. We’ve always had a big emphasis on open, very honest communication at Naughty Dog. I think that’s something that has helped us keep our company culture. Just the new people arriving at the company can see the way that we all talk to each other every day in the course of developing our games. They could see just as one example that it wasn’t only the game designers who did game design. Everyone at the studio was encouraged to contribute game design and production ideas on what we were working on.”

One of the points Lemarchand put a lot of emphasis on during his presentations at the GDC, was how anyone at Naughty Dog who has an opinion about a project is encouraged to go and find the people responsible, tell them what they think and have a discussion about it. “The people on the receiving end always have to listen, pay attention and have a conversation about the issues and see if they can be resolved. That’s really instrumental in facilitating the fast, loose way we go about developing our games and that we think contributes very directly to the high bar of quality that we’re able to achieve.”

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Lemarchand recently talked about the development of Uncharted 2 and the value of their Macro design at this year'

The mighty macro design

According to Lemarchand, nobody will find a lot of documentation on the desks of Naughty Dog developers. Using a spreadsheet seventy lines long, the team specifies their macro game design instead of a regular one hundred page game design document. While still in pre-production, Lemarchand’s team started assembling the best ideas for the game, which are then turned into the macro game design.

“We actually make it a point to only specify just enough to get across the core of the idea of what we want,” Lemarchand added. “When I say we it’s not just we designers, but that’s we as cross disciplinary teams of designers, programmers, artists, animators, audio guys and visual effect guys. Together we establish the vision the game. We’re always really careful to track our vision.”

The incredibly short spreadsheet shows the team all the places that the game will visit, all the beats of the story and other information like gameplay and characters that will appear in each level. At full production, the story and gameplay pattern would already be completely worked out, giving the team full freedom to start the long journey to the game’s launch. This kind of macro design has always been an inherent part of Naughty Dog’s production methods.

“We believe that the strength of the macro design is that it has a skeletal simplicity which makes it very adaptable to change. The change that is demanded by the complexities of the unfolding production. The decisions that we do make, we are careful to document those. You’ll often find a whiteboard at Naughty Dog that says ‘do not erase’ on it in big letters. A digital camera is an important game design and documentation tool at Naughty Dog because we take photos of the whiteboards that we can then refer back to throughout the course of working on whatever part of game we’re working on.”

Lemarchand finds it strange that is has not yet become a common practice in game development. There’s been enough occasions where a game studio has the design document written tightly. In such a situation, developers are then ordered to focus on making the game instead of being motivated to think about what could be improved or changed for the better. Sadly, the management of some of the biggest game studios still consider that to be a loss of time and resources in discussion. At the same time, Lemarchand argues that the freedom of collaborative thinking is what makes Naughty Dog’s games so much better.

“We have to stay focused on those things that we agreed upon as a cross disciplinary group and the things that are best for our game. It makes the game design so much stronger when it is inspected by many different points of view.”

During his presentation at this year’s Game Developers Conference in San Francisco, Lemarchand told his audience of developers that the key to this collaborative attitude is that his team members are encouraged to stay critical and open to each other. “We always take the time to listen to each other and we never make things personal,” he explained. “We’re all in it to work together towards the greatness of the game, building strong collaborative bonds between members. There’s nothing better than feeling that you’re working on your optimal capacity.”

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Lemarchand told us the lay-out of Naughty Dog's new office also reflect the company's design philosophy

Pre-production paradise, no producers allowed

Normally, a pre-production period for an average game studio is filled with milestones and deadlines. Naughty Dog’s pre-production apparently has none of those. “Our pre-production period is very freeform. It’s a time of brainstorming and concept art creation and prototyping of game mechanics and our game engine.” Uncharted 2 was a great experience for Lemarchand’s team, since they just used the existing game engine from Uncharted Drake’s Fortune to immediately start prototyping new gameplay. Fortunately, Lemarchand’s team makes sure that the game design process is never separated from the game’s story. He referred to it as two people playing leapfrog, with one being game design and the other story design.

“That’s very important for us, because we think that when you make a cinematic action game like ours, it’s very important that the rhythms of the story match the rhytms of the gameplay very exactly in terms of the ebb and flow of intensity and increasingly in terms of more subtle emotional stuff that we set up as pay off for the player, which we did a lot of in Uncharted 2.”

It’s interesting to mention how no one at Naughty Dog has the job title of producer, because the studio’s culture that Lemarchand loves so dearly makes sure that all the production work is collectively handled by the entire team. “The idea that the only way to get the best out of your game developers is to empower to organize themselves to be open with them and trust them to do a good job,” he recently told an entire hall full of game industry executives at the DICE summit in Las Vegas. This seems to have worked out, even forcing Naughty Dog management to start planning on putting mandatory limits on the time people spend at their office. Lemarchand also admitted that a strong sense of responsibility keeps each member of his team from letting any mistake or misunderstanding during production go by unnoticed.

Sporting a continuously proud and content demeanour before, during and after my talk with him, Lemarchand knows that the right mix of passion, enthusiasm and talent in the ranks at Naughty Dog makes sure he will not have to worry about any problems any time soon during his new project currently in pre-production.

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Written by Vlad M.

Vlad wears many hats, but he's mostly known for his work as a freelance game journalist, researcher and consultant. He's always looking for the next game related project to sink his teeth in. You can find his adventures over on www.VGVisionary.com

One comment

  1. Danny /

    Great interview! It’s nice to read a little more about a developer, see what they’re like.

    “even forcing Naughty Dog management to start planning on putting mandatory limits on the time people spend at their office.

    If that’s true, it must be awesome to work at Naughty Dog 😛

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